“A Paris-Roubaix without rain is not a true Paris-Roubaix. Throw in a little snow as well, it's not serious.” – Sean Kelly
There was a flurry of excitement earlier this week when Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix organiser ASO suggested that the first section of cobbles set to be used in this Sunday’s race was ‘covered in mud and could be too dangerous to use’, suggesting that this weekend’s race could be a rain-drenched one.
We all get excited at the prospect of apocalyptic conditions at what is already one of the hardest one-day races in the world. It’s partly down to the images of mud-caked riders who look like they’ve emerged from a war zone, and the fact that we get to see these normally superhuman athletes suffering badly. However, it’s also because we get to see the true giants of the race emerge when conditions are as bad as they can be – as proven by these legendary wet editions of cycling’s greatest Monument.
1972: Mr Paris-Roubaix emerges
The 1972 race saw the first victory of ‘Mr Paris-Roubaix’, Roger de Vlaeminck under atrocious conditions. De Vlaeminck was the first rider to win four editions of the race – a feat equalled only by Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen.
The wet and muddy conditions resulted in a massive 40-rider crash the in the Arenberg trench - taking down major rival Eddy Merckx. De Vlaeminck survived the chaos with a 17-rider group, which he picked off one by one before coming into the final velodrome solo, two minutes ahead. Only 49 of the 160 starters finished the race.
1984: Kelly is king
Irish rider Sean Kelly was one of the most successful Classics riders of all time, and held a particular affection for rain-swept editions of Paris-Roubaix.
The 1984 race was extremely muddy. The deciding move came with 45 kilometres to go, when Kelly launched an attack with Rudy Rogiers to bridge to La Redoute riders and race leaders Gregor Braun and Alain Bondue. Braun was soon dropped and Bondue crashed. Kelly easily won the two-up sprint with Rogiers on the Roubaix velodrome to take his first Paris-Roubaix victory.
2002: Museeuw takes the prize - but who’s that in third?
The most recent wet edition of Paris-Roubaix was billed as a showdown between two-time winner Johan Museeuw and US Postal’s George Hincapie.
While Museeuw came out on top in the mud with a masterful performance, it wasn’t Hincapie who was the American team’s top placer: it was a Belgian neo-pro called Tom Boonen who came in third after Hincapie careened off the cobbles. Thus, a legend was born - with Boonen taking his first of four Paris-Roubaix victories just three years later.
2014: The Tour hits the cobbles
OK, it’s not technically a Paris-Roubaix, but Stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France perhaps gives us the best indication as to what would happen if today’s peloton had to endure a wet Paris-Roubaix. Orica-GreenEdge’s Backstage Pass from that day gives us the best insight into the trepidation the riders felt before the stage:
As it was, the most significant retirement of the race (Chris Froome) took place before the first secteur was even started. However, the secteurs used in this stage were relatively tame compared to those in Paris-Roubaix proper.
Even so, this race gives us some clues to who might come out on top in a wet Paris-Roubaix. Former cyclocross racer Lars Boom took the stage, which suggests that he and fellow muddy funster Zdenek Stybar could be riders to watch: equally, Tom Boonen is one of the few riders still in the peloton who has placed in a wet Paris-Roubaix.
Could this be the year that conditions play into his hands and he finally dethrones de Vlaeminck as ‘Mr Paris-Roubaix’ by taking a record fifth victory? We'll find out this Sunday: online coverage of the 2016 Paris-Roubaix starts at 6:30pm AEST, with our TV broadcast on SBS2 from 8:30pm AEST across Australia.